An Ancient Tale of Separation, Longing and Loss: "Changgan Memories" Revisited

In an epic poem that marks the passage of time with the changing of the seasons,

Li Bai, the celebrated Chinese poet, describes the union of a young teenage couple amidst the great bucolic splendor of historic Changgan county.

In this vintage poem, “Changgan Memories”, Li Bai speaks through the voice of a

beautiful young woman, yearning for her distant lover. In a brilliant description of

heart wrenching adolescent emotion, he writes,

When my first hair began to cover my head,

I picked and played with flowers at the gate.

Then you came riding on a bamboo horse*.

You circled the trail; playing with green plumbs.

We lived together, here, in Changgan.

Two little children without even a misgiving.

Then when I was fourteen I became your wife.

I was so shy my face remained closed.

But I bowed my head before the shadowed wall,

and called you one thousand times, yet I never turned, not even once.

At fifteen I began to lift my brows, and wished to be with you

as dust is with ashes.

Yet you always kept your massive pillar faith**.

I had no reason to climb to look for you upon any hill.

But when I was sixteen you went far far away….

to Yandui in the Qutong gorge.

You should not have risked the dangerous floods that come in May.

And now as the sad monkeys cry in the sky, my pacing has left a mark before the gate.

And little by little the green grass has grown.

The moss is much to deep to just push away.

And as leaves fall in early autumn winds; in August the butterflies are yellow.

A pair of them flies over the grass in the western garden. I feel that they are damaging my heart.

My face now grows sad red and old.

When you come down the river, send a letter to to your home.

We’ll go to meet each other however far.

I’ll come to meet you at Changfengsha.

A Contemporary Reading of Events

In a bittersweet story of a young girls’ adolescence, this poem demonstrates the poets’ great ability to describe the kind of deep genuine emotion that can cut straight to the bone.

Brimming with playful heartfelt imagery and filled with rugged rustic scenes, its real value may lie in the human drama that may, like the woman in the poem, encourage us to call into question the foundations upon which our very existence is built.

A Massive Pillar Faith

In a tale that calls to mind the spiritual dimensions of a young womans’ first love, we find a girl awakened by the opening of her heart and soul. Tragically however, this wonderful feeling soon begins to fade away.

Overwhelmed by an emptiness that threatens to ravish her very soul, she searches onward. But her yearning is followed by pain; a tragic mournful loss.

Yet in the end she continues to beckon. But only the poet knows if her true love will ever come to return.

And Now the Sad Monkeys Cry

In a scene in which monkeys are said to be crying in the sky, the young girl is immersed in her desperate longing and pain. She cries out, but no one can really hear her.

And little by little the green grass continues to grow. But the moss is now much too deep to just push away.

My Face Grows Sad Red and Old

In a doleful state of sorrow, the young woman must cope with an array of emotion for which she has been sadly, quite ill prepared for. Faced with the prospect of a life of loneliness, racing thoughts and endless ruminations begin to trouble her mind. And tragically, they begin to take their toll.

The sad mournful woman cries, ” As leaves fall in early autumn winds; in August the butterflies are yellow…. I feel that they are damaging my heart.”

When You Come to the River Send a Letter to Your Home

Yet in a demonstration of hope she looks inward. Hoping to find a dream that will rekindle her steadfast faith, she says ” When you come to the river send a letter to your home. We’ll go to meet each other however far.

I’ll come up to meet you at Changfengsha.”

A Foregone Conclusion

Yet the ultimate fate of our lovely young lady is certainly for us to question.

Will her heroic husband return?

Is she destined to live alone?

Or will she be lost in a sea of bitterness, or like the beautiful butterflies, learn to fly gradually, up above?

….. For only she and the poet, will ever really come to know.


* a bamboo horse is a bamboo cane used as a toy horse

** a massive pillar faith is a term from a traditional Chinese story. In this story a man arranged to meet his lover by the pillar of a bridge. When the river waters rose, he continued to clutch the pillar awaiting her return. Ultimately however he drowned as he waited.